Health unit to issue mandatory mask order for higher-risk establishments and public transit
Officials say order comes in light of more evidence proving the effectiveness of masks
The Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) will be issuing an order mandating certain businesses, such as hair and nail salons, to comply with public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including having all staff and customers wear masks or face-coverings when offering services.
The order, which is set to come into effect on July 20, applies to any other businesses where workers are less than two metres away from a customer for more than 15 minutes and is an extension of Ontario's Emergency Management and Civil Protection act, which already mandated the use of masks at personal care establishments.
"We're at a point now where the combination of local data and the research evidence indicates that now is the time to issue a mandatory order for masks in some particular locations," said Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health with the MLHU during a media briefing Thursday afternoon.
"We think masking can play an important role in those facilities where close contact is the business model and can't be really changed or eliminated."
While COVID-19 cases in London have been on a decline, Mackie said certain outbreaks linked to businesses in other regions similar to London had caused concern, such as an outbreak at a Kingston nail salon last week that resulted in 27 cases.
"The reason we're ordering this in those highest risk settings is because those are the settings that are most likely, in my opinion, to be associated with an outbreak even in the context of a very low spread of COVID that we currently have in the community," he said.
The order will not come into effect until two weeks after it's issued in an effort to give businesses and individuals time to source masks.
Children under the age of 12 will not have to wear a mask.
As to why the move comes now, almost three weeks after the region entered Stage 2 of Ontario's reopening framework, Mackie said that there's simply more data that backs the effectiveness of wearing masks and more evidence that outbreaks, such as the one in Kingston, are still possible for communities like London with low infection rates.
In addition to masking, Mackie said the health unit's order outlines principles to curb the spread of the virus, including maintaining physical distance, which he said remains the most important tool to contain the spread.
"When you're out in public and interacting with people, keeping two metres apart is the most effective intervention," Mackie said, adding that research on physical distancing points to the method being more effective than masking.
"It can be easy, I think, as the case counts drop to relax a little bit and to get lulled into a false sense of complacency," said Deputy Mayor Jesse Helmer. "I think this order is sending a very clear message to folks, especially in those higher risk environments, that we need to do everything we can to protect each other."
Fines for not following the order could result in individual fines up to $5,000, or $25,000 for a business.
Mandatory mask order for public transit
A separate order mandating public transit riders to wear a mask or face covering while on public transit will also be issued, Mackie said on Thursday.
Enforcement will be a collaborative effort between the MLHU and the London Transit Commission.
"It's important not to create not an equal or larger problem by putting drivers in the position of having to interact in a conflictual way confronting transit riders," Mackie said, adding that ideally the order along with proper education will result in compliance.
"We'll focus on high-risk individuals and repeat offenders who are aggressive with violating people's personal space."
For Tayrel Charles, who was waiting for his bus in north-west London Thursday afternoon, the order comes as a relief.
"It would be nice if everyone wore a mask," he said. "I'm old. I'm 85 and I don't want to die yet."
The announcement came the same day when Toronto's mandatory mask policy came into effect for all TTC passengers.
Policy for mandatory masking at all indoor public places still on the table
For now, Mackie said, London will not be following several communities from Windsor to Toronto on a mandatory mask policy in all indoor public places, but the option is not off the table.
"We will not hesitate to expand this order later if needed."
"If we do reach higher disease levels, at or near the peak levels that we saw in April of this year, then we will certainly reconsider expanding the order to include more, all the way up to all, indoor public spaces."
For several weeks now, the health unit has been strongly recommending using masks or face coverings while in public spaces.
Mackie said that public health orders are "a very powerful tool" that need to be used "carefully," adding that London's infection rate is simply not the same as other regions that have made masks mandatory in all indoor public places.
As of Thursday, Middlesex-London had reported 627 cases and 57 deaths due to COVID-19. There hasn't been a death in the region since June 12.
Despite the drop in new cases, Londoners like Jeff McClellind, who was shopping at a grocery store Thursday afternoon, would like to see a mandatory mask order for all public establishments.
"It would make sense to do so," he said. "It should've happened a while ago."
"Nobody likes to wear a mask, but it's better for everybody if we do it."